“We know nobody wants us to make it here,” Nerio said last month in Eagle Pass, Texas, a city of 30,000 that is at the center of the surge in Venezuelan migrants to the United States. He asked that his last name not be published for fear of his safety.
Last month, Venezuelans overtook Guatemalans and Hondurans to become the second-largest nationality stopped at the US border, after Mexicans. Nerio, who had traveled with about a dozen others fleeing poverty and violence in Venezuela, was among them.
Venezuelans were stopped 25,349 times, a 43% increase from 17,652 in July and four times the 6,301 encounters in August 2021, authorities said on Monday, signaling a remarkably sudden shift in demographics.
An estimated 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled their country since the 2014 economic slump, mostly to Latin America and the Caribbean. But the relative strength of the US economy since the COVID-19 pandemic has led Venezuelan migrants to look north. US politics and strained relations with the Venezuelan government also make it extremely difficult to send them home.
Word has spread in Venezuela as more family members and neighbors reach Texas and are released with notices to appear in immigration court or on humanitarian parole.
“We hope that in a few years the problems in Venezuela will be resolved so that we can return to our home country, but until then we have to be migrants and endure what this journey will mean for us,” Nerio said.
The effects are reflected in the daily headlines. About 50 migrants whom Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew to the upscale island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts last week were Venezuelans, as were five of six men who US authorities arrested in early September in the Rio Grande near the Eagle Pass found drowned.
José, who asked to be identified by only his middle name out of fear for his safety, was on one of two DeSantis flights. He walked for almost three months before crossing the Rio Grande in a rubber dinghy and surrendering to border police.
While staying in a migrant home in San Antonio, José met a woman who promised him housing, a job, medical care and free legal aid for at least three months. She told the migrants they would go to Washington, Chicago and other pro-immigrant “sanctuary cities.”
“We imagined that she was a very important person, that she had a lot of influence and could really help us,” said Jose, who had to go to Philadelphia for a mandatory immigration check-in at the end of September. “We believed in her. The ignorance of the immigrant.”
But when they reached Martha’s Vineyard, an enclave known as former President Barack Obama’s summer vacation spot, “nobody was waiting for us, nobody knew who we were,” said José, 27, in a phone interview from a military base in Cape Cod , where Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker moved them on Friday.
A Venezuelan family in Boston offered a room and food to José, who earned $20 a month as a garbage collector in Caracas and left his two children with his grandparents. He will notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of his new address and reschedule his appointment with the agency to Boston.
“Now we are free, we can go where we want,” said José. “I feel blessed by God.”
Venezuela has one of the highest inflation rates in the world and about three quarters of the population live on less than $1.90 a day, an international standard for extreme poverty. The monthly minimum wage, paid in bolivars despite a dollar-driven economy, is the equivalent of $15. Many do not have access to clean, running water and electricity.
The pandemic has made jobs in Latin America and the Caribbean countries scarcer and the United States more attractive to live in. At the same time, the United States’ strained relationship with the Venezuelan government makes it extremely difficult to expel Venezuelan migrants under a pandemic rule known as Title 42, which US officials invoke to deny people the ability to seek asylum to stop the spread prevent COVID-19.
Mexico, under pressure from the Biden administration, introduced restrictions on air travel to limit Venezuelan migration to the United States, but many then switched to the dangerous land route.
Cuba and Nicaragua also sent more migrants to the United States in the past year. In all, migrants were stopped at the border 203,597 times in August, or 2.15 million times since October, for the first time in a governing year over 2 million.
When asked about immigration Tuesday, Biden said, “What I have my eye on now is Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. The possibility of sending them back to those states is not rational.”
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro responded by saying the US was trying to “take political advantage of the suffering of a group of Venezuelans who, in the face of sanctions and economic warfare, have made a personal decision to emigrate elsewhere.”
“North American imperialism has tried to destroy and collapse our country, and Joe Biden today appears to be attacking Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua,” Maduro said during an event televised by state media.
Solomon reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas, Venezuela, and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed.